A TALE of the FUR COUNTRY
A SUCCESSFUL fur trader must, above all else, have control over his Indians, and Johnnie Upham, newly-appointed post manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company, began his career at Spirit Lake with the hunters on the verge of open revolt.
“They’ve an idea they can overrun me and they’ve made up their minds to do it,” Johnnie confided to the very recent Mrs. Upham the third night after their arrival from district headquarters at Savant House. “They think I’m easy and can be imposed upon, and they’ll ruin the year’s business unless I put them in their place in a hurry.”
Mrs. Upham did not reply, because she realized fully what such an eventuality would mean to Johnnie. He had not only the handicap of the average apprentice clerk beginning his first year in a responsible position, but there were arrayed against him the unfriendliness and suspicion of a vast and ancient organization in which stern precedent, exacting demands and unbounded leniency were strangely mingled.
Only the leniency was not for Johnnie, and both he and Mrs. Upham knew it. He had been sent to Spirit Lake post, the best in the district, because he had played a trick on Duncan Macneil, the old district manager. The trick had been condoned because it had been successful, and success is fur land’s ethical yardstick. It had even won Macneil from four years of open hostility to frank appreciation, but the former aversion would return if Johnnie did not make good. All possibilities of success hinged directly upon the immediate future.
“In a way, it’s Macneil’s fault,” Johnnie continued, “and if you go back that far you might as well call it mine. He was against me because I’m English—the first English clerk, and the last, as he often expressed it. I did all I could to encourage him in his dislike. My fame went all over the north country. I was a fresh youngster from England, and each post manager of the old school boasted of what he would do if he happened to draw me as clerk.
“Campbell had me here at Spirit Lake last year. He went out of his way to belittle me before the Indians-, and now when I come back as manager they think I’m easy and they don’t doubt for an instant but that they can overrun me. They’ve started already, and when I get on my dignity they only laugh.”
“Insist upon their keeping their places,” suggested Mrs. Upham.
“They’ve got to recognize me as boss first. If I had the summer before me I would be able to convince them that I am. But now the only thing that’ll have an effect on them is a stiff jolt.”
“Throw the next one out of the store when he becomes unruly,” and Mrs. Johnnie said it with full belief that her husband was able to perform the feat.
“Force won’t do,” was the objection. “It’s been tried in such cases and it never works. A clerk tried it last year and a big Indian grinned and picked him up and hugged him until the poor little fellow cried. No, they haven’t any respect for me because Campbell gave them the idea that I don’t amount to anything. He made sport of me before the Indians and laughed when they did. They simply don’t think I have it in me to keep them where they belong. I’ve got to do something to make them eat out of my hand.”
MARY UPHAM, who had come from England only the year before as governess at Savant House, and who was sensible enough to know that her knowledge of the Indian and of the fur trade was too meagre to be of use, refrained from more suggestions. She did have faith in Johnnie, however, but a faith which was strained two evenings later when he came in to supper in a fresh fit of despondency.
“The trouble is worse,” he announced, “though I got to the bottom of it this afternoon. A strange Indian named Wascum has come from the south. He claims to be a medicine man and has gained a lot of influence. But whether he has the influence or not, one trouble-maker in a band like this is all that’s necessary. He’s stirring them up worse than ever.”
“How?” asked Mary anxiously.
“For instance, I was giving an Indian his fall debt this afternoon. He wanted to take a dollar watch for himself and one for each of his two sons, and I told him he couldn’t have them. He hadn’t paid all his last year’s debt, and one of the boys needed a capot and didn’t need a watch.
“I called his attention to these facts, and just as I finished speaking I happened to catch Wascum nodding at the Indian. The man made one jump over the counter,
grabbed two watches and was back before I could make a move. I ordered everyone out of the store. Wascum shook his head, and no one went. I lost my temper then, the worst thing I could do, and charged the bunch. Thanks to football, I got them all out and the door locked before they knew what happened.”
“What will you do now?” asked Mary.
“Like they did in the old days and still do in some posts. I’ll let one hunter into the store at a time, outfit him, and turn him out before I let the next one in. They’re kicking, too, because I didn’t call a council, like every new post manager does. I know what would happen, with all of them talking against me at once. One at a time, I may be able to handle them.”
Mary saw, however, that Johnnie was not confident that he could, and the next noon he had further news of a disquieting nature.
“I have one friend here, anyhow,” he said when he sat down at the dinner table.
“Adam Thunderbird, the housekeeper’s husband, who’s worked for the company ever since he was a boy, told me this morning he saw Wascum talking with Wheeler , j¡¡
last night down at the Point. Wheeler is behind half the trouble, or he’s heard of it, ^
and is making matters worse through Wascum.”
“And he’s the free trader Macneil said r you must drive out of business.”
Mary was voicing a thought which she knew was in Johnnie’s mind.
“Yes, he cut into the fur receipts badly two years ago. Campbell was sent here to drive him out and fared worse. And now I haven’t even half a chance for the fur with the Indians acting up this way. Before I can start doing things to Wheeler I must get hold of these hun-
TOHNNIE spent the afternoon in the store. By *-* supper time he had outfitted two hunters, ordinarily an easy task in a well-regulated post, but in this instance one that verged several times upon disaster. Even at the end, Johnnie had a feeling - that somehow he had failed to impress himself upon the Indians, that they had left the store without a shred of that loyalty to the company they had always had, without that spirit that results in a successful winter’s hunt.
As Johnnie was locking the store door after the second Indian had departed, the chief of the band and two other Indians approached. Everything _ about them, their measured steps, their unusually serious expressions, indicated that they had come for a council. It was a new move in the game, a fresh scheme of Wascum’s, he knew, and he braced himself for what he felt to be a crisis. He had failed to command respect. Now they were ready to make unreasonable demands.
“Well,” he began, belligerently, in Cree, “what do you want?”
“We are here to get our fall debt, all the Indians, the chief begun. “So far only a few have received their outfits. Fifty hunters have yet to be supplied.”
“I know all that,” snapped Johnnie.
“Now they must leave without debt, without powder or
clothes, and this winter they will starve.”
“I’m perfectly willing to keep the store open day and night,” retorted Johnnie, “and every man will get his outfit more quickly if they behave themselves.”
“It is not that,” protested the chief. It is the weeteeg0”
“Weeteego! What wqeteego.'
“It came this afternoon, there in the swamp behind the camp. The women heard it. They called some of the men and they heard it. In the morning all the hunters will leave, unless—”
“Unless what?” demanded Johnnie.
“Unless you make medicine against the weeteego.
“Oh, that’s it, eh? You come around here and demand this and demand that. You jump over the counter and grab goods off the shelves. You laugh at me here in the store. You go back to your wigwams and make plans to bother me, to get goods to which you are not entitled. And now, when your old women hear the wind in the trees down in the swamp you are afraid and you come and ask me to help you. I am young. I know nothing. I am afraid. I have no strength. My heart is a deer’s heart.
I come from a strange country where men are fools.”
Johnnie went on repeating what he knew the Indians were saying about him, depicting the attitude they had assumed toward him. His indignation increased, but it was feigned, so well feigned that before his assumed wrath the chief and his companions were speechless.
“Go back to your wigwams,” the young post manager concluded. “You thought you were men and that I was a boy. Get your medicine man to make medicine against the weeteego. Wascum says he ' can conjure anything. Let him do it.”
“But Wascum says his medicine can do nothing against a weeteego,” protested the chief. “No Indian can conjure a weeteego.”
“Then take the consequences,” Johnnie declared angrily. “Don’t come around here and ask a boy to do it for you.”
HE opened the gate in the picket fence that surrounded the dwelling house and stalked away, leaving the Indians standing outside. Before they could think of anything further to say he had entered his home and closed the door.
Instantly the dignified carriage disappeared and Johnnie sent his wide-brimmed hat whirling into a corner, as he grabbed Mary and swung her about the room.
“I’ve got them!” he cried, exultantly. “I’m going to hand them the jolt I’ve wanted to.”
“What is it?” asked Mary, when she had recovered her breath.
“There’s a weeteego scare among the Indians,” explained Johnnie. “It’s only a scare. The women imagined they heard something in the swamp behind their camp. But I’m going to give them a real scare, a sure enough weeteego. Then when they’re ready to run, I’i! go out and kill the weeteego, but only on condition that they behave. I’ll pretend I’m taking big chances, and they’ll think I’m somebody after all.”
“And then if you can get rid of Wascum everything will be lovely,” Mary added.
“Wascum! There’s an idea. Is Adam in the kitchen?” Johnnie ran out through the dining-room and in a moment returned with Adam Thunderbird.
“Did you see Wascum this afternoon?” he asked. “Wascum never come to the post,” answered Adam. “Me over at the camp this afternoon and he no there. Maybe he gone after meat.”
“Meat nothing!” exclaimed Johnnie. ‘ ‘Adam, I’ve got a job for you to-night. You've heard the Indians talking about this weeteego scare. Y ou don’t bel ¡eve in weeteegos, do you?”
Adam smiled and shook his head in a superior fashion. “Well, I want them to have a real scare after dark to--
night. We’ll fix up a lantern with a red cloth around it and something that will make an unearthly noise. You’ll take them down in the swamp and raise a row for about five minutes and then come home.
To-morrow they’ll be back asking me to use my medicine against the weeteego, and after I get them right where I want them, I’ll promise to do so. Then to-morrow night you play weeteego again Adam, and I’ll go down into the swamp with a rifle and fire a few shots. You’ll let out some blood-curdling yells and groans, and that will be the end of the weeteego.”
“But will they be good just because you do that?” asked Mrs. Johnnie.
“My dear, you don’t understand what a weeteego is.
A weeteego is the worst of evil spirits. It is a cannibal ari'd eats men, women and children. There’s nothing of which a Cree is quite so much afraid. Luckily for us in this case, there have been instances of insane Indians turning cannibal and thus perpetuating the weeteego idea. No, they’re in earnest when they say they’ll leave if the weeteego remains'. Tonight, they’ll have a real scare, won’t they, Adam?”
The halfbreed grinned in appreciation of the joke.
Johnnie began plans for a really artistic weeteego. He and Mary had electric flashes which would make admirable eyes.
“I’ll shoot out first one and then the other to-morrow night, Adam,” Johnnielaughed when their plans were completed.
A/fARY and Johnnie waited impatiently for darkness. IV1 while they were in the dwelling house Adam announced a second visit by the chief, but that pleading dignitary was sent away without a sight of the post manager. Adam reported that the Indians were awaiting nightfall with increasing fears and that everything pointed to certain success.
When darkness came, Adam slipped out of the kitchen door, across the clearing and into the swamp. Johnnie and Mary sat on the dark verandah, from which they had an unobstructed view of the thirty'or forty wigwams stretching along a ridge above the swamp for a quarter of a mile. Great fires were being built in the hope of preventing a possible attack by the monster, and around these the two watchers could see groups of silent Indians.
They did not have long to wait. First their attention was attracted by a sudden movement in the groups about the fires. Then came low murmurs, followed by shouts. There was a scramble to throw on more wood and drums were beaten violently. In a few seconds the camp was in a turmoil.
“Adam is getting in his work,” exulted Johnnie. “Tomorrow night at this time I will begin to play the conquering hero.”
They waited impatiently for the return of the spurious weeteego and watched for him to come sneaking in across the clearing. But a half hour went by and there was no sign of Adam. The commotion in the camp had died down meanwhile, but the groups were still gathered about the fires.
“Adam is waiting for a favorable opportunity to get back,” said Johnnie, as he led the way into the house.
He spoke uneasily, and the exultation of a few minutes before had given way to anxiety.
“Nothing could have happened to him, could there?” asked Mary.
“I can’t imagine what it might have been,” he answered. An hour went by, but still no Adam. At last Johnnie reached for his hat and started toward the door.
“I’m responsible for his going,” he said. “But it can’t be possible that some of those hunters dared to go down
“There is someone coming into the kitchen now,” whispered Mary.
“Is that you, Adam?” Johnnie called.
THE door from the kitchen opened and Adam entered.
He was trembling, there was a strange pallor under his brown skin, and before he closed the door behind him he glanced back nervously.
“What happened?” demanded Johnnie.
“The weeteego, in the swamp,” was the tremulous answer.
“I know. It was fine. They were scared to death. To-morrow night we’ll wind them up.”
“But the weeteego. Me see him. In the dark. He nearly get me.”
“Nearly get you!” exclaimed Johnnie. “What do you mean?”
“It no joke, this weeteego business. Me see him there after I make believe weeteego. He ten feet high and he half bear and half man. He growl like three bears and he almost eat me.”
“Do you mean to say you believe there’s a real weeteego down there in the swamp?”
“Me see him,” repeated Adam, doggedly. “Nonsense! That’s just as I suspected. Wascum started this scare this afternoon. He was away somewhere and he must have been down in the swamp. You ran into him and got scared, Adam.” “That not Wascum. It ten feet high and like a half bear. T see him.”
“That can’t be, Adam. Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll think differently of it. And to-morrow night you’ll play weeteego again and we’ll end the business.”
“No more,” announced the halfbreed, emphatically. “Not when real weeteego there.”
“But you said you didn’t believe in weeteegos,” protested Johnnie.
“Me see him,” was the dogged reply. And nothing further could Johnnie get out of him. He argued for half an hour, but at the end Adam said, “Me see him,” deposited his paraphernalia on the floor and departed.
“Now we’re in a worse stew than ever,” said Johnnie, when the door closed. “There’s no one else to play weeteego, the Indians are scared stiff and liable to pack up and leave. Why, this is certain ruin to a year’s business.” “But can’t you go down and run Wascum out of the swamp to-morrow night instead of Adam?” suggested Mary.
“I’d be glad to try it, but I haven’t a bit of faith in that. Wascum may be a medicine man, but he’s as afraid of weeteegos as the rest of them. I don’t believe, in the first place, he was in the swamp. And if he were, and saw Adam, as he would be sure to, he’d never go again.” “But Adam wouldn’t imagine he saw a weeteego.”
“That’s exactly what I believe he did do. He’s worked for the company all his life and lived with white men, but he’s an Indian yet and nothing could ever change him. Now, at the grand finale of our show we’re minus a villain.”
'T'HE next morning the chief and a dozen men appeared and demanded protection. For a time Johnnie evaded the question, hoping that he might instil fresh courage in Adam before night or that something else might turn up that would permit him to play the role of .protector of the Indians. At noon he saw Wascum outside of the store and the medicine man appeared to be as apprehensive as the others. That decided Johnnie. There would be no further scare.
“If a weeteego comes to your camp to-night I’ll come over and handle him,” he told the chief. “If you want my opinion, I don’t think there was a weeteego, and I’m sure you won’t see one to-night.”
After supper Johnnie argued again with Adam, but without success.
“It’s no use,” he told Mary. “I’m without a weeteego, and without a weeteego I can’t be a protector of my Indians. I hoped Wascum might act, but I see him over there helping lug up wood for more big fires to-night.” Johnnie was willing to admit his failure, but he did not care to discuss it, even with Mary, and on the excuse of having some work to do on his books, he went to his little office in the rear of the store. For a time he sat looking out of the window, watching the darkness come, and trying to devise some means of playing weeteego himself and at the same time be on hand for the call that was sure to come from the Indians.
At last, abandoning the idea, he lighted a lamp and took down a ledger to study the Indian accounts of the last few years, a task necessary if any new post manager is to become acquainted with his hunters. In time he became so intent on his work that a loud knocking on the outer door of the store came as a complete surprise. He hurried out to find the chief and several other Indians.
“The weeteego!” they exclaimed together. “He’s in the swamp now. We saw him. Come.”
“Who’s the weeteego?” he demanded involuntarily. “Wascum?”
“Wascum is making medicine now to keep him away from the camp.”
The Indians hurried back, and, without even waiting to lock the store, Johnnie ran across the enclosure to the kitchen. Adam must have gained new courage.
“Adam,” he called as he opened the door. “Are you
The halfbreed appeared from a rear room, where he and his wife had their living quarters.
“Who’s playing weeteego ?” demanded Johnnie. “You’re here and Wascum is with the other Indians. The chief says he saw one in the swamp just now.”
“It is the weeteego,” declared Adam with a complacency that escaped Johnnie completely, for he had turned toward his own part of the house.
“Mary!” he called, as he burst into the living-room. “Get my rifle. I’ve got a weeteego at last.”
There was no answer. The room was empty. He went across the hall to the bedroom, looked out on the verandah, ran around inside the enclosure, but Mary was not to be found. He had picked up his rifle in the house and at last turned out of the gate toward the Indian camp.
“Mary’s around somewhere,” he muttered, as he hesitated a moment. “She’s all right, anyhow.”
AS he took his first step there came from the swamp an unearthly sound, a sound that is made by only one contrivance—a piece of resin pulled along a string fastened to the end of an empty tin can. For one paralyzing instant, Johnnie stood motionless, and then started on a run for the Indian camp.
That sound could be made by only the one thing, and no one at Spirit Lake knew of it except he and Mary and Adam. And Adam was in his room in the house and Mary was not to be found. There was only the one explanation. Mary was playing weeteego. Mary, to save him, had taken the risk of further frightening a band of frantic Indians, had taken the chance of encountering the medicine man, Wascum, in the darkness of the swamp.
She had not even suggested it to him, knowing too well what his answer would be. But in his absence she had taken the two flashlights and the groaning apparatus and had gone out alone to save the day for him.
As Johnnie ran on the possibilities of her act became less terrifying. He could see the Indians gathered about the huge fires. There were no signs of an offensive on their part. He had only to reach them in time and take charge of the situation to insure Mary’s safety.
When he was fifty yards from the nearest wigwam the shouting and drum-beating suddenly ceased. The Indians stood quietly about the fires, each staring intently at the swamp below. It was ominous, the confident quiet, and Johnnie ran on until he found the chief, his knees weakened by the fear of what this sudden change might portend.
THEN came a shock of joy as the resined string groaned in the darkness, and Johnnie whirled to see a quick double flash that had the appeàrance of two eyes in thedarkness of the swamp. It meant that Mary was safe, that she would run no more risks. But even in his relief he realized that he must not waste the opportunity her daring had afforded. With a bit of swagger, he turned toward the chief.
The chief had not seen him, so intent was he in watching the swamp. All the Indians were watching it. The resined string groaned again, but there was no consequent fright. Instead there was a most evident assurance of security. The Indians seemed suddenly to become spectators, not terror-stricken participants in the drama.
Johnnie’s fears returned instantly, but he retained sufficient self-possession not to betray them.
“Is that your weeteego?” he asked the chief, pointing toward the swamp.
“Ye^,” was the answer, “but he soon be killed. Wascum has the white man’s medicine from Wheeler that is greater than the weeteego’s, and he has gone into the swamp to kill it. You will hear him shoot soon. Wheeler gave him bullets that will kill any spirit.”
Johnnie looked down the bare slope of the ridge to see a shadowy figure disappearing into the swamp. It was; Wascum. In another moment he would be lost in the thick growth, would be making his way silently and swiftly toward Mary.
With one leap, he was in pursuit. The thought of what would happen when the Indian approached her, his rifle ready, his progress silent, made Johnnie reckless of boulders and brush. But the very peril of the situation brought coolness, and as he thrashed heedlessly through the black swamp, his mind was alive to every possibility of the situation and what had led up to it.
EMRSTLY, he knew that Wheeler had been at the hot" tom of the weeteego scare, and undoubtedly had seen through his own part in it. The free trader would have had no trouble in convincing Wascum of the potency oi white man’s medicine, but the Indian, terror-stricken, despite any assurance, would begin shooting upon his
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first glimpse of the flashing eyes in the darkness.
Adding to a realization of this danger, the sound of the resined string came again. For a moment Johnnie tore on more recklessly than ever, and then he suddenly recognized the fact that he alone was keeping Mary in the swamp, that he had only to fire his rifle several times and she would depart. Blindly, loyally, she was continuing her part in the affair, confident that he was there to do his.
Before he could come to a full stop and cock his rifle one foot struck something soft and he nearly fell. An outflung arm caught the trunk of a spruce and he whirled, his weapon ready.
There was a slight noise of breaking twigs at his feet, then a moan. In the darkness he believed he saw something move. ,
“Wascum!” he commanded. Stand up! I’ve a good mind to shoot you.”
He lifted his rifle and fired twice above the Indian. As the echoes died away, he heard a wail from the resined string, now close at hand, and instantly he fired again.
“Return!” he shouted in English, using words that could not possibly be understood by the Indians. “Return immediately!”
“Now, Wascum,” he continued, in Cree. “I’ve got you. You’ll come in here and scare my Indians to death, will you? Do you know what the Indian Act of the Dominion of Canada says about such things? It says jail for five years, and that’s what you’re going to get. You start for Savant House and the mounted police in the morning. Come! Get up!”
TOHNNIE knew little of the Indian J Act, but he enlarged upon its terrors as: he drove the Indian before him in the intense darkness. Whenever Wascum protested his innocence or blamed Wheeler for the entire affair, his captor discovered a new punishment for the crime. All the time he urged his prisoner on, while he himself dropped farther and farther behind. Then Wascum’s protests suddenly ceased and Johnnie
had a feeling of being alone. Immediately he fired his rifle three times and then started straight for the Indian camp, the lights of which shone through the tops of the trees.
The Indians, men, women and children, crowded about him as he approached, but he stalked straight through the crowd and on toward the post. The chief and several others tried to shake his hand, but he brushed them off and kept on. At the edge of the camp he turned and faced them.
“The weeteego is dead,” he announced. “Wascum tried to kill him, but Wheeler’s medicine was bad. The weeteego ate Wascum, as a lynx does a rabbit. You will never see him again. My own medicine was good. I shot him, and the swamD opened up and swallowed him. He will never bother you again.”
Johnnie’s dignity lasted only so long as he was within the light of the campfires. Once beyond that he ran to the post, vaulted the fence and burst through the door. Mary stood in the middle of the living-room waiting for him. Instantly his anxiety was supplanted by indignation and he began to scold. He scolded in earnest, but only for a moment, and then his arms went around her.
“You’ve established your right to a place in furland,” he cried, “but don’t you ever do it again, not for me or for j anything.”
“That’s not the point,” she protested. : “Did it work?”
“Work! Wait until to-mörrow and § watch those Indians. And Wascum! Wait I for him, too!”
THE next day and the next week ¡ Mary saw an overbearing Johnnie j outfitting his hunters. He commanded ! and demanded, he reduced the debt of j several, and there were no protests, no [ signs of insolence. Soon the entire band ¡ had departed for the winter’s hunt, i satisfied, uncomplaining, anxious to shake the hand of the post manager.
And through the winter the chief i subject of conversation in widely-scatj tered wigwams was the terrible fate of Wascum, the medicine man, who was j devoured by a weeteego.